After over five years as an online cricket commentator (most recently for Guerilla Cricket), I’ve come to know what works for me. Having been asked to give a little coaching recently, I thought it might be useful to gather some thoughts and lay them down here. You might never need them yourself, but they might be interesting anyway – at least I hope so.
Stay in the moment
Cricket is a game of events, each separate yet linked into an emerging narrative. Ball-By-Ball commentating is also a series of events, each described in the present tense as it occurs. It’s best not to speculate about what may happen next ball, next over, next session and it’s definitely unwise to be correcting an error on the previous ball while you’re trying to concentrate on the next – like batting really.
The key to good Ball-By-Balling is a fluency in the language of cricket: the deliveries, especially spinners’ variations, some of which may even be genuine and not ruses to spook the batsman and commentator; the shots, including the more outré options of Twenty20; and the field placings, something easily ignored, but vital to those listening without pictures. Gain confidence with that langue et parole (or, like me, be unable to remember a time when I could not make a silly point absolutely clear) and you can concentrate on describing not what’s happening at the cricket, but the cricket itself – an altogether richer, more mysterious thing.
Build the narrative
The game, especially its Test format, is much more than a series of discrete events, it’s a blockbuster novel, a Courbetesque oil painting, a grand opera being constructed before our eyes. It is the role of the summariser to bring this dimension to the commentary, throwing the match forward to the next over, next session or back to the previous innings or the first Test of the series or even matches played years ago.
The internet is, of course, a tremendous source of facts and figures, the vast arsenal of Statsguru available to check if Monty Panesar did get to fifty wickets quicker than Moeen Ali or Graeme Swann. Use it to build the context of the match, to locate it in cricket’s history, to draw out the possibilities already being hatched. And that’s before we get to Twitter…
Web 2.0 seems a long time ago, before trolls, nerds and Sachin fans gripped cricket interactivity as they, or their avatars, also filled website comments sections with their flaming and defaming. But the scale of the web means that there’s plenty of room for everyone and, in Test cricket particularly, plenty of time too for questions to be thrown out for listeners to answer, for their ideas to come forward and develop the conversation and for them to tell you that it’s time to get back to the matter at hand.
For it’s much harder (much harder) to identify when you’ve wandered too far off topic, of the precise moment when the jokes start to go flat, of the unheard, unseen but sometimes inevitable drift as the listeners tune out (metaphorically or literally). Since cricket commentating demands that you exist in that moment (and, frankly, because it attracts those who like the sound of their own voices) it’s very, very easy to get carried away. Twitter can be a good means of bringing the commentator back down to earth – after all, not many of us (apart from our now departed Australian master) have ever had it suggested that we talk a little more.
Energy and Enjoyment
The listener could be anywhere in the world at any time of the day or night, but almost always they’ll be looking for you to add energy to their day through your commentary. This can go too far – the delight as Shane Watson is hit in front and is given out again, when he reviews it again and when the decision is upheld again, is simply too much for a red-blooded Englishman to greet with sang froid. But an appreciation of how the volume and tone of your voice rises with different events on the field and how you can manipulate that to capture the tension of the last ten overs of a run chase or a mid-afternoon collapse, is something in which time is well invested.
Finally, it’s worth enjoying the gig too! It’s what got you into the seat in the first place and cricket was never our job, it was always our pleasure, so communicate that to the listeners, who are much more like you than they are like the ex-Test players who crowd behind the microphones at many international matches. It’s also perfectly possible to “enjoy” something you aren’t actually enjoying, as I recall my own Truemanesque mutterings as I described ball after ball being smashed for six, as bowlers offered AB De Villiers length on a flat track in the last five overs of an innings. I mean – what could I say!
There’s more (much more) but perhaps that’s enough commentating on commentating for now – because when things get too meta, it’s best to remember the word’s meaning in Spanish. And stop.